The Smile Has Left Your Eyes

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Chapter Six

Aspen

My eyes burst open as an agonizing wheeze escaped my throat while chilling cold sweats broke out across my body. Alex forced me out of the painful memory-filled dreams when he jumped on top of my stomach as if it was a trampoline.

He wore a sadistic smirk that made me blanch. When his body raised into the air, his floppy hair rose with it only to fall back down every time he landed on me, his heels cruelly digging into my left side just below my rib cage. My body seized, my torso involuntarily contracting toward my legs.

In my panic and confusion, I grabbed hold of one of Alex’s legs and threw him to the ground. With a loud grunt, the back of his head collided with my desk.

I gasped, heaving for air, unable to catch my breath as I clutched my stomach and brought my legs to my chest, curling into a small, tight ball.

“Did you just touch me?” The seething voice had me averting my eyes, looking down and nowhere else.

Alex removed himself from the ground. With one knee on the floor and his other foot firmly planted, he used his hands to push off his propped leg. The floorboard under the carpet creaked with his angry strides. The second he had both feet on the ground, Alex lunged toward me, wrapping his hands around my neck and forcing my head back onto my pillow. “Who the fuck gave a disgusting piece of shit like you permission to put your hands on me?!”

My hands scraped at his hold, desperate to find release. I kicked and squirmed under Alex’s vicelike grip. I tried to wedge my fingers between the skin of my neck and the flesh of his fingers, but he pressed so hard that all I was able to attain were numerous bloody scratches to my neck.

Blood rushed to my face and a tingling sensation spread through my fingertips. I thrust my hands into Alex’s face to try and push him away, shoving at his cheeks and forcing his chin to rise into the air and his upper body to straighten.

There was a slight ease in strength from the two hands around my jugular. I wanted to breathe in all the oxygen my room contained, but the burning in my airway forced me to cough instead.

Realizing that his hold had loosened, Alex cocked his right arm back and brought it down onto my face.

He didn’t stop until there was a loud cracking sound followed by a string of curse words. “You broke my hand!”

My hands ghosted lightly over the tender skin of my throat before I leaned to the side, coughing small bits of red liquid onto my blankets. My mouth tasted like iron and something dripped down the corner of my painfully split lips. My jaw hung open and the gooey substance of blood mixed with saliva dribbled out of my mouth and onto my sheets.

He clenched his jaw and turned his harsh glare to me, cradling his bruised, blood-covered knuckles. Alex’s nostrils flared and his eyes were on fire—like he wanted me dead, and at some point, he might be willing to get the job done himself.

“All I wanted was to be a nice big brother and wake you up since you missed school. But I guess this is what I get for trying to help a fag,” Alex snarled, slamming the door shut on his way out, the vibrations rattling through the walls.

I collapsed onto my bed. So it didn’t work, huh?

My shaky breaths slowly became more controlled. My entire body trembled, which wasn’t surprising. I was probably as pale as a sheet of paper, the color most likely completely drained from my lips. Sweat soaked through my clothes, creating a damp spot on the comforter beneath me.

I looked up at the strange texture of the white ceiling. Something about it drew me in—it was almost hypnotizing. I’d left my curtains open, not bothering to close them last night—scratch that, this morning. It looked to be around sunset by the tint of orange from the light filling my room.

I sighed. Disappointment dripped from the veins of my arms along with the blood.

Nothing ever went my way. All I wanted was to die, yet I’d gotten the shit beaten out of me instead. Wonderful.

Wasn’t life ironic? I inflicted pain on myself to deal with the damage my brother dealt constantly. Double the agony. Didn’t seem very fair, did it?

At first, my goal last night was to relieve some stress. I kept the cuts thin and short, my inner thighs now covered in ugly checkered marks. But the more I kept doing it, the more I couldn’t keep the thoughts away.

I wanted to end it. So I did everything I could to make sure it happened. I should’ve tried to find stronger pills, but it wasn’t always easy to get a hold of good shit on short notice.

I attempted to sit up, but pain jolted through my abdomen. I clutched my side over my plain, light-grey shirt. My eyes closed as tightly as they could, and I shuffled my body as high on my bed as possible before weakly lifting my black covers. I struggled to hold it up while I softly slid myself under the comfortable warmth. Once fully inside, I twisted to lie down on my right shoulder.

I reached out to grab my phone, happy to see I’d managed to plug a charger into it before I’d passed out. Three missed calls from Coach Gale. One text from Isa. And nothing from Rafe.

Of course not… Why would he want to talk to me? He was the one that should be mad; it was my fault after all. Everything he said to me on the field was true.

Since I was still alive, should I apologize? But he would demand an explanation. What kind of lie would work with something like this?

I unlocked my phone, and the first thing that popped up was Devin’s story; the video was from last night.

“Yooo, Rafe!!” Jason shouted excitedly, holding a camera extremely close to Rafe’s face. Rafe was slumped against the couch with a red cup in hand. His eyes drooped and tears streamed down his face.

“Tell us again why you’re so upset to the point that you’re getting shitfaced on a Tuesday night,” Devin snickered, recording the whole ordeal.

“Amelia broke up with me.” Rafe’s words were quiet.

“And why did she do that?” Even though I couldn’t see Devin in the video, I could tell he was smiling and getting a kick out of this.

“Fuck!” Rafe shouted. “I can’t believe I just left him there by himself.” Rafe peered up toward Devin’s phone with a giant frown on his face. I couldn’t help but think he looked cute. “What if he got lost?! He has a terrible sense of direction.”

He’s talking about me, isn’t he?

“Why didn’t you just call him, then?” Jamey asked, sitting next to Rafe on the small couch.

“I really fucking wanted to, but I dropped my phone off of Amelia’s balcony and into her pool.” He sniffled and took another swig of his drink. “I want to apologize so damn much! After I left Amelia’s house, I drove back to the field, but I didn’t see him on my way there or the way back…”

“That still doesn’t explain why she broke up with you,” Jason commented.

“We had a kind of deep conversation and she made me realize a lot of things. And because of those things, she said we couldn’t be together,” Rafe sighed. He seemed coherent enough to not be drunk, but the slightly out of character openness made me think he was at least a little buzzed.

“Shit, it must have been something big for her to break up with you,” Jamey added.

“Yeah… Really fucking big.” Rafe rubbed his temples as if the reason had given him a splitting headache.

“So,” Jason drew his words out, “what was it?”

“Nothing, don’t worry about it,” Rafe waved him off.

“Wait, I’m confused. Are you sad because your girlfriend broke up with you or—”

Rafe cut Jamey off. “It was a mutual decision. We decided we’d be better off as friends.” He took a large gulp of the liquid in the solo cup.

“What does that have to do with Aspen?” Devin asked.

“Well, I’ll just say that our conversation started off with Amelia telling me that all I talk about is Aspen and she thought I cared about him more than I do about her.” Rafe didn’t go into further detail. “So I told her that she was right.”

“That’s kinda gay.” Devin’s lighthearted tone concealed the passive aggressive words.

“Yeah, man,” Jamey started with a disbelieving laugh, “why the hell would you say that to your girlfriend?

“Of course Aspen is more important!” Rafe said adamantly. “I’ve been with him for fourteen years. Fourteen. That’s a long time! I’d barely been dating her for three weeks.

“Yeah, but one will get you laid, and the other is like the weird next-door neighbor your mom makes you spend time with.” Jason’s words stung.

I could’ve guessed that I didn’t mean much to them, but still.

Jason.” Devin’s stern voice forced Jason to look at his camera.

He should’ve stopped recording at this point. Why did he post this? He knew I’d see it… Oh. He wanted me to see it. Devastation crept its way up my spine. My lack of surprise was replaced with instant understanding. I couldn’t blame them—I wouldn’t want to be friends with me either.

“Come on, man. You can’t say that shit. Aspen’s our friend.” Jamey’s brows were furrowed as he defended me.

Devin moved his phone back to Rafe whose jaw was visibly wired shut. Rafe scowled, “If I hear you say one more thing about him, I will fuck you up so bad that your own parents won’t recognize you.”

The room filled with silence before Devin abruptly ended the video.

Wow… okay.

A dreadful-yet-giddy feeling enveloped my mind and sent butterflies to my stomach.

He felt bad about ditching me… that thought made me feel a little better. But then again, did he care about me that much, or was it the alcohol talking?

I’d heard a lot of people say a drunk man’s words were a sober man’s thoughts. But I’d also heard the most bizarre and absurd things come out of Jamey’s mouth when he was intoxicated. Like that one time when he tried to convince everyone he used to be best friends with a flying leprechaun named Mauricio. If I didn’t know better, I’d think someone had slipped him something.

Maybe I should go ask Rafe what he meant… it couldn’t hurt, right?

I sighed and carefully sat up in my bed, throwing my covers to the side and flinging my legs over the edge. I stared at the ground with my phone clutched tightly in my hand. The muscles in my abdomen contracted involuntarily, my body unsure of how to react and deal with the new injury; I should’ve known by now.

I built up my courage, using my arms to help push me off the mattress. I managed to get myself into a standing position. I huffed as I tried to take a step, ultimately stumbling forward. My palms landed on the desk just feet away from my bed, but the distance forced my legs into a strange lunging position.

“Ow! Shit!” I yelled, still trying to keep my voice somewhat quiet.

I could feel the strain on my inner thighs tearing the fresh scabs. I used the desk to pull myself back up, hissing with every movement.

What did I have left that didn’t hurt at this point?

The bruises and lumps and skid marks and burns and pain, so much fucking pain, were adding up faster than I could heal. But Alex didn’t care. He didn’t give a single crap about anything and everything that hurt. And that long list now extended to my torso… from being jumped on. Jumped on.

Who the fuck would do that?

And I couldn’t leave out the self-inflicted injuries, could I? No, of course not. My arms were still raw, my thighs freshly cut, and my body rejecting the stuff I tried to take last night. I’d sweated through my clothes and probably had a mild fever. Yay... how pleasant.

My only regret from last night was that I woke up.

Without a second thought, I rummaged through one drawer and pulled out a joint and a lighter, shoving them both into the pocket of my black sweatpants. I limped my way to my closet, rummaging through the many piles of clothes stacked on shelves until I clasped my hand around the neck of a bottle of Spirytus. I pulled it out and looked at the half-empty bottle. It tasted like shit, but it sure as hell did its job; I wouldn’t be able to find a better-tasting drink with an alcohol concentration as high as this. I popped the small, circular cap off and took a hefty swig of the vodka. My face contorted, relishing the slight burning sensation filling my mouth and throat.

I wobbled to my closed door, my right hand not leaving the jolting pain in my rib cage. I slowly turned the knob. Being careful to not make any noise, I peeked through the small crack and peered into the hall. My brother’s door was wide-open, which usually meant he wasn’t in there.

My left hand trailed the wall as a means for stability until I got to the top of the staircase, where I checked left and right, leaning down as far as I could without falling. My eyes caught nothing and the only sound in the house was the buzzing of the air conditioner.

It took me forever to get down the stairs. I passed each step with extreme hesitancy, since the shifting of my weight and the uneven distribution needed to descend the staircase was proving to be more agonizing than I’d originally thought.

Once through the front door, I was met with Alex’s vacant spot in the driveway. I presumed that he’d driven himself to the emergency room. Noting that I was in the clear, I began the awful journey to Rafe’s house. It was already dark outside, but the night breeze created a nice medium between the hot air that still lingered from the scorching sun earlier in the day.

I think that was the first time Alex had ever gotten hurt doing that stuff to me. Although I wasn’t thrilled about how it happened, a part of me enjoyed the pained expression on his face. The bastard deserved it.

I hated violence; I wouldn’t have wished it upon anyone. But my brother deserved it. I knew he’d never go through the things I had, but he deserved to suffer. Even if it was just a little. Just a broken finger or knuckle. Just a fraction of what he’d done to me.

My thoughts kept me company on my prolonged walk to Rafe’s house. I had some very detailed discussions with the voice in my head. Yes, it was my own voice, but it was one hell of a conversationalist. It made up scenarios that would only come true in my dreams, and for its favorite pastime, it liked to replay traumatic events. Tonight’s cinematic showing focused on what Rafe had said about me to Jason and everything it could, but wouldn’t, mean. I almost wished I hadn’t heard those words. It was like he was giving me hope. False hope.

Standing in Rafe’s driveway, I placed the alcohol next to a small shrub before approaching the Alvarezes’ front door. Without removing my right hand from my abdomen, I lightly knocked.

“Just a minute,” Teresa yelled from the other side.

Within seconds, pounding footsteps approached. The door unlocked and she flung the wood open. She wore patterned pants and a tight hot-pink shirt with a short, moss-green cloth wrapped around her neck that she used to dab sweat off her forehead.

“Oh, this?” Teresa gestured toward her getup. “I was following a Zumba video!” she shared excitedly before her smile dropped into a frown and a worried expression overtook her face. “Dios mío! Aspen, what happened to you?” She reached out her hand and cupped the side of my face, inspecting all the cuts and bruises.

“I was going downhill too fast and ended up falling off my bike.” I flashed a cheeky smile followed by a soft chuckle. “It looks worse than it feels, so don’t worry too much.”

Teresa sighed in relief and retracted her hand.

“I actually came to talk to Rafe…” I glanced past her and into the quiet house.

“Oh, that’s right! Rafe said he broke his phone, so I guess he couldn’t tell you. He left a couple hours ago to listen in on one of Mateo’s conferences..”

“So he’s not here?” I bit the inside of my cheek, ignoring how it was already bloody from having been cut by my teeth when Alex punched me.

“No. He’ll be back Monday afternoon. It’ll last several days this time, so he’ll miss school.”

Mateo worked as a therapist and often traveled to different states to speak at conventions and such. Rafe had gone to a couple before, usually leaving for three days up to a week.

Looked like I needed to find another way to get to campus tomorrow. Walking… walking wasn’t going to work. Not with the distance and the state of my ribs.

“Uhm, did he say why he’s going?” We had a game this weekend. I didn’t want to play, but if Rafe wasn’t there, I had zero incentive to show up, especially not with the crippling pain that had me questioning how I was even still standing.

“Mateo didn’t want to take him, and Coach Gale wasn’t happy, but Rafe was unusually adamant about attending this one. He has a great deal of interest in psychology. He often goes to his father with questions about specific symptoms and treatments. His face is always buried in electronics, doing research.”

I didn’t know that. Why don’t I know that?

Rafe used his dad as an opportunity to ditch all the time, always complaining about how boring psychology and sociology were when he got back. Rafe told me everything, but he’d never mentioned this.

“Oh!” The sudden noise startled me, my wide eyes jumping to hers. “He’s so strange! Whenever Rafe looks something up, he tries to put on a very straight face. It’s almost unnatural. I think he’s trying to hide his interest in the subject. He’s probably embarrassed that he likes something besides baseball when he used to rant about how that sport is the love of his life!” Teresa burst out into laughter and rubbed small tears from her eyes.

“I see,” I nodded. “Well, it was nice to see you, Teresa.”

“Yes! You’re welcome any time. Even if Rafe isn’t here, don’t hesitate to come by for some food if you’re hungry!”

I flashed a bright smile and pretended to laugh. “Thank you.”

“Of course! You’re practically my second son!”

I wish.

I parted from Rafe’s house even more confused than when I got there, grabbing the much-needed high-ABV drink on the way. I’d received no answers.

I made my way to the park near my house, stumbling onto the playground. The streets were eerily quiet, the only noise coming from an occasional car passing by. Wednesday night left the area completely abandoned by its usual host of children, any kids that would’ve been playing probably tucked into bed. Streetlights illuminated the structure, flashing dim lights onto me and the hole-filled walkway I sat on. I leaned against a thick, blue pole bolted into the top of the slide.

I slumped against the metal, utterly exhausted. My whole body wailed in miserable pain. It was so overwhelming that the aches gave me a splitting headache.

I fished the pre-rolled joint out of my pocket, taking out my Zippo lighter and admiring the Joker card design. My life was one giant joke. I faked everything every day. Didn’t that make me the ultimate Joker? I even kept a smile plastered on my face.

I flipped open the lid and rolled the metal spark wheel down with my thumb, lighting the tip of the joint and slowly rotating it with my fingers. I put the weed to my mouth, sucking it in and holding the drug-filled air in my lungs for several seconds before leisurely blowing it out. Smoke fell from my nose and ajar mouth. I took another hit and then another, feeling a little better. I wasn’t so focused on the pain and my mind was able to briefly forget about the cause of my problems.

I felt content while I gazed at the full moon. It was so bright and beautiful. The stars occupying the sky captivated me. The crisp nighttime air numbed my fingers, and my nose twitched from the cold. I sat in a comfortable quiet while the sound of crickets filled my surroundings as I continuously went back and forth between smoking and taking large gulps of the bitter liquid.

I put my lips to the joint, breathing in more of the natural plant.

“Aspen?” The sudden voice startled me; I choked on the smoke and erupted into a coughing fit.

I looked down at the source of the female voice standing near the bottom of the slide. “Isa? What are you doing here?” I asked calmly; the alcohol and weed had not only made my mind foggy, but also mellowed me out.

“I was bored, so I decided to come here and maybe hang out on the swings. What about you?” Isa asked as she walked over to the mini rock wall that led to the platform I was on.

“Wanted to get out of the house and relax a bit.” I gestured toward my joint.

She climbed up and placed herself at the opposite side of the top of the slide, just a couple of feet from where I had my legs stretched out. She scrunched her nose up, placing a hand over it and turning her face away from me. “Damn, Aspen, you reek! What the hell have you been drinking??”

I sluggishly turned the bottle resting next to my hip to show her the label.

“Want a hit?” I asked, holding the rolled joint out to her.

“Don’t mind if I do.” She quickly rubbed her hands together to warm them up before taking it to her lips.

She murmured along with her released puff, “This is good shit.”

“Damn right it is.”

Isa handed it back to me, and as she did, she caught sight of my face. “Holy shit, Aspen! What happened to you?!” Her eyes bulged and she suddenly sat up as straight as a board. “Is that why you’re drinking something so strong?”

“Hmm?” I mumbled, taking yet another hit. It was probably the last one I was going to get tonight. “I guess you could say I got into a fight… although I’m the only one who looks like this…

“Why would anyone do that to you?! You’re literally the sweetest person I’ve ever met.” Isabella’s voice was soft and genuine. Her eyes drooped down at the ends, showing the utter disbelief and heartache she felt at seeing her friend like this. If I wasn’t still so put off by what Jason had said about me, I might’ve been touched. “Who was it?”

The drugs might have made me high, and I was nowhere close to passing a BAC test, but the substances also gave me a sense of confidence and carelessness that I otherwise lacked in my sobriety.

“My brother,” I slurred, placing the joint back on my mouth in hopes I could suck just a tiny bit more out. My eyes were half-closed, the alcohol making me drowsy and the weed making my eyes unnaturally red.

“What?! Alex? Why would he do that?!” she practically screamed.

Normally, I would’ve told her to be quiet since her voice was loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood, but something in me simply didn’t care anymore.

I was calm… Or maybe it was just the emptiness settling in for the night.

I’m so tired of this…

My voice came out monotone, as if I hadn’t a care in the world. “Because I’m gay.”

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